Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704): leaving Buddhist haiku behind

Aki kaze ya
Ware ni kami nashi
Hotoke nashi

The wind in autumn
As for me, there are no gods,
There are no Buddhas.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Descartes, science & the mask

The sciences are now masked; the masks lifted, they appear in all their beauty. To someone who can see the entire chain of the sciences, it would seem no harder to discern them than to do so with the sequence of all the numbers. Strict limits are prescribed for all spirits, and these limits may not be trespassed. If some, by a flaw of spirit, are unable to follow the principles of invention, they may at least appreciate the real value of the sciences, and this should suffice to bring them true judgment on the evaluation of all things.

 — Réne Descartes

Psychology of Jewish humor

When simplicity hits the mark, it's genius. This Jewish joke, distilling an aspect of social psychology to its essence, could not be more priceless. What's funnier than Jewish humor?

A man gets shipwrecked on an island that’s less than half a mile around. When he’s rescued years later, his rescuers discover that he’s built two synagogues! “This one,” he says, bringing them into the sanctuary, “is where I’ve gone every week to talk to God and to keep my sanity. And that one,” he shouts, pointing at the second synagogue, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that one!”

Baron D'Holbach on the terror in religious belief

"The idea of such powerful agencies has always been associated with that of terror; their name always reminded man of his own calamities or those of his fathers; we tremble today because our ancestors have trembled for thousands of years. The idea of Divinity always awakens in us distressing ideas ... our present fears and lugubrious thoughts ... rise every time before our mind when we hear his name. [. . . .] When man bases morality on the not too moral character of a God who changes his behaviour, then he can never know what he owes to God nor what he owes to himself or to others. Nothing therefore could be more dangerous than to persuade man that a being superior to nature exists, a being before whom reason must be silent and to whom man must sacrifice all to receive happiness."

-- Baron D'Holbach, System of Nature

Hermann Hesse: 'The Glass Bead Game' (1)

Written November 27, 2009 at 6:05 am
It’s been 40 years since I read Hermann Hesse’s novels as a teenager. Actually, I read only a few, those most popular to the ‘60s generation: Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf. I don’t recall reading others, and I know I never read The Glass Bead Game. My reactions were mixed. Obviously, the sensibility of these novels overlapped with the ‘60s sensibility. The outsider consciousness of Demian resonated most. While I could relate to some aspects of Siddhartha, others left me cold, particularly the Buddha-figure who treats his disciples like children and rationalizes his position to the main character, who admires him even while going his own way. I found this encounter nauseating. On the other hand, I was taken with Steppenwolf, which also expressed the outsider sensibility in a compelling fashion. However, within a few years my outlook changed, and I still recall how I relished the put-down of Steppenwolf I read in a campus newspaper: “All work and no play makes Harry a dull boy.” Harry being the main character who takes his angst all too seriously, and me losing interest in this sort of reading material. And that was the end of my engagement with Hesse until now, lifetimes later.

I’m just guessing at this point, but there seems to be two warring loyalties in Hesse’s soul: one, the attraction toward the mysticisms of the East; two, the desire to preserve one’s independent, authentic, individual experience. The Glass Bead Game is predicated on another major element, which I do not recall in the other novels mentioned: a nostalgic feudal-traditionalist pole of attraction, which stinks to high heaven of political reaction. But since the main character, Joseph Knecht, harbors rebellious tendencies, and, who, we will eventually learn, leaves the hierarchical monastic order in which he ascends to the top, the jury must for the moment remain out on what Hesse is all about.

Dominique Lecourt on the "Sacred" as Contemporary Ideology

Before so liberally attributing such a ‘sense of the sacred’ to humanity, however, are there not good reasons first of all to ponder the meaning of this notion? Far from being eternal, the category of the ‘sacred’, such as we spontaneously contrast it with the ‘profane’, was in fact invented very recently—in the early years of the twentieth century, when Émile Durkheim published Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912), and Rudolf Otto a famous work entitled Das Heilige (1917). These books have inspired the two major currents in the historiography of religion. The first comprises the ‘immanentist’ historians, who regard religious facts as assimilable to the same type of explanation as the set of phenomena studied by the social and human sciences. The second inspires those who regard such facts as intrinsically different from other facts, because they refer to a distinct order of reality. But ultimately, the opposition between ‘immanentists’ and ‘transcendentalists’ proves secondary. The essential thing is that ‘religious facts’ exist and that they are observable, identifiable as such, throughout human history. What, however, of the conception of religion that has governed the characterization of these ‘facts’? Let us read Otto: it is clearly a Christian conception—the particular conception that prevailed in the Lutheran current of the Reformation, placing emphasis upon inner feelings, on the faith that would inevitably be born out of the experience of transcendence. By what right do we universalize this conception? Can the ‘facts’ assembled under the heading of ‘Greek religion’ really be conceived in these terms? Or Roman religion? Or Aztec rites and beliefs? Buddhism? There are excellent reasons to doubt it. What, then, is the purpose of such universalization? Otto—who at least does not conceal his hand—answers as follows: in the end, it involves a celebration of the superiority of Christianity, such as he practises it, over all other religions!

SOURCE: Lecourt, Dominique. The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the Mid-1970s; translated by Gregory Elliott (London; New York: Verso, 2001), pp. 89-90.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Science education & critical thinking in higher education

Rethinking the Way Colleges Teach Critical Thinking 
By Scott K. Johnson | Scientific American, December 14, 2012

Facing both conservative dogmatism and the decline in college students' critical thinking skills, the author is concerned about about the enhancement of both science education and the capacity of the people to engage in critical evaluation of knowledge claims. He is dissatisfied with the traditional approach: "Scientific literacy and critical thinking skills are seen as natural side-effects of studying a science."Opposing the tendency to reduce education to rote learning, even of science, the author proposes "an entire semester on critical thinking and the nature of science."
Where standalone critical thinking courses exist, however, they are mostly found within the humanities and social sciences. Those courses often center on argumentation and literary criticism, or instead on the philosophy of logic, but there are opportunities to expand this— particularly by giving science a larger presence. 
Johnson advocates the teaching of logic, rhetoric, cognitive biases and pitfalls,and the scientific method. Critical thinking courses are readily adaptable to the critique of American culture, and the incorporation of objective knowledge, or rather investigation of the basis for knowledge claims and determining their objective basis, is also useful. Such courses would have to be interdisciplinary.
Contrary to the criticism that classes like this would merely be weekly exercises in debunking, critical thinking is as much about problem solving and extracting meaning from complexity as it is about not falling for hokum. (Of course, conspiracy theories and sasquatches would certainly make an appearance.) And this is where science fits in so naturally. Practice with a scientific way of thinking—developing conclusions that flow from the data, rather than cherry-picking data to support your pre-existing conclusion—adds such an important tool to the kit.
To this I would add my own comment: note that in order to exercise critical thinking, there is an actual knowledge base that has to be acquired; there has to be content and a real-world background off which to bounce critical perspectives, which cannot exist in a formalistic vacuum. And, as the author insists, mere teaching of content does not guarantee the capacity for critical thinking. With this in mind, see my bibliography:

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking:A Guide

In my introduction I criticize both the old formalist and the new postmodernist conceptions of critical thinking. See especially the paragraph that begins:
While traditional elaborations of the formal characteristics of critical thinking are always useful, they do not guarantee the ability to think critically in real-world ideological, social, practical contexts. I contend that in effect there is no such thing as critical thinking in general, and that critical thinking is not formal, but content-driven. Here I am not thinking merely of credentials or qualifications, though such are customarily necessary in our time for scientific advances. Assuming legitimate expertise, the problem is that experts in one area may be cretins in others or in matters of common concern, because they are not at heart critical thinkers, or because they don't know how to engage other areas of inquiry, for lack of knowledge, the proper analytical skills or knowledge base, familiarity, etc. Furthermore, amateurs can be critical thinkers in the areas in which they are not experts, but to do so they have to engage enough of the content so that they can formulate meaningful questions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Howard L. Parsons on mysticism revisited

In my two previous posts on Parsons, I commented, inter alia, on his essay essay "Theories of Knowledge: A Dialectical, Historical Critique", with some complimentary and non-complimentary remarks. Revisiting it, I want to emphasize that this essay is unique and invaluable.

It's an example of how much philosophy arrives in the public sphere DOA, while academic philosophy, like the intellectual world at large, rolls on addicted to familiarity and fashion. I don't participate in the star system in philosophy any more than in any other area. My goal has been to rescue noteworthy work from oblivion. Parsons belonged to a particular tradition in Marxism too heavily indebted to CP/Soviet-style Marxism: these people produced some good work even though they took questionable positions in other instances.  And the more "worldly" philosophers get now, the more they lose perspective: the merger of popular culture and intellectual culture demonstrates how thoroughly the culture industry saturates the souls of people in our time.  But back to Parsons.

Of particular interest in this essay is Parsons' treatment of mysticism, especially its psychophysical aspects.  Parsons makes a number of interesting statements, including this one:

As a theory of knowledge and of reality, mysticism is false. It absolutizes a moment in man's interaction with the world—the sense of qualitative unity. It statically identifies that moment with reality and with knowledge. It destroys the distinction between man and the world and obliterates the dialectic between them. Mysticism is the practice and ideology of men bent on escape from their conflicts and struggles in the real world. It is a flight of the attention from continuous intercourse with things, events, and people to concentration on a single quality or experience. It is a flight of fantasy insofar as it elaborates a theory in defense of this flight in practice. In the Western Christian Church heretical movements have often been associated with mysticism because it represented a counter‑movement against abstract and verbal orthodoxy. But it remained an alienated protest against the ruling form of alienation, a religious answer to a religious mistake. That mistake, especially in Western supernaturalism but also in various forms and mysticism, is the division and falsification of reality in thought. Things and events are interpreted as static, fixed, and isolated from one another, with no real interpenetration, conflict, development, or qualitative change. Such an interpretation serves the interest of the ruling class, which wishes to keep things and classes as they are, and to avoid conflict, change, and development into a new kind of class society or into a classless society. Mysticism perpetuates this mistake by emphasis on an experience which presumes to absorb and transform (aufheben) all parts and conflicts into a final and unified whole. But the mistake of mysticism is that while the world is felt to be unified, it goes on, in separated processes that interact and change without ceasing, outside the skin of the mystic.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Breakfast of Champions" (1)

"I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can't live without a culture anymore."

"Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness."

As I mentioned in my 2007 review Revisiting Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, I devoured Vonnegut as a teenager, but I ceased reading his novels after Breakfast of Champions (1973). I wasn't even aware of any subsequent novels for a couple decades afterwards. I am not certain why this is, but I think by the mid-'70s I absorbed everything I thought I had to learn from Vonnegut and moved on to other priorities.

But sometime in the '90s I began to rediscover music and literature of my youth I had assumed to have outgrown, and gained a new appreciation. I don't know when Vonnegut re-entered my consciousness, possibly with my renewed interest in the atheist/humanist movement, but I re-read Cat's Cradle in the month following Vonnegut's death. Then in June 2007 I read his novel Timequake (1997) and the 1999 nonfiction work Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing with Lee Stringer. I'm pretty sure I since read A Man Without a Country (2005), and I may have even given a brief scrute to Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace (2008).  Vonnegut continues to pop up in unexpected places: Vonnegut in Hungary: postmodernism, hi-low genre hopping, & self-parody.

I decided some time ago that I wanted to re-read Breakfast of Champions. I remembered little of it: the childlike illustrations, recapitulating one's past, unvarnished bitterness, and something about the biochemistry of emotion, . . . and a piece of narrative on solipsism of vital interest to me today.

Because my local branch library rid itself of books upon installing more computers than books, I could not find Vonnegut on the shelves but had to download this novel as an e-book so I could re-read it after 39 years.

Re-reading the novel now, I am amazed to find that I had forgotten its most conspicuous themes. Does it say something about me that I remember only something about solipsism? (I'm still waiting to find what I think I'm looking for.) There is sharp criticism of the emptiness of American life, of ecological problems, of consumerism, of war. But the most persistent indictment of American society is of its racism and class inequality! I am struck by how heavy is the emphasis on race.

I note also the outrageousness of Vonnegut's science-fictional imagination. His anti-hero Kilgore Trout's garish si fi scenarios are all contained within the covers of pornographic books, per the publisher to which he sent his manuscripts. I love the combination of outlandish pulp sci fi ideas and philosophical-social content.  Vonnegut didn't need to write out Trout's novels, he had only to describe the scenarios and ideas within them. I wish I could learn to use this technique.

Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (3)

Those who follow the atheist / humanist / skeptics blogosphere are probably aware of controversies that have erupted over the past few years, mostly in connection with accusations of sexism and the role of women within the movement, but also to some extent the priorities of black atheists in relation to established national organizations. I have no intention of questioning the validity of such concerns, but I do question the ideological basis from which many of the dissidents operate.

In my podcast Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology I vaguely alluded to the mechanical combination of ideological labels coming from progressive movements and the atheist/etc. movement. Atheism Plus is a particularly noxious ahistorical, intellectually dishonest, demagogic, and ultimately vacuous attempt to brand a new division of the movement, or a new movement altogether. The insipidity of such gestures mirrors the insipidity of the mainstream from which the dissidents purport to distance themselves.

Such liberal or left-liberal developments are symptoms of the lack of a vigorous mass movement in the USA, more centrally, the lack of class politics. The sins of the hard left stem from the same condition. When you have a subculture of professional middle class people who are essentially spectator-tourists in the world of human suffering, bad politics and superficial accusations of self and others become the political watchwords.  Thirdworldism is one such manifestation of bad politics, which, however bankrupt, would have at least made sense in the context of the global anti-colonial anti-imperialist thrust of the '60s & '70s, but is worse than worthless now.  But just as disgusting is the politics of "privilege", perpetrated of course by the privileged, with no constituency or substantive program, against whomever is deemed more privileged, the white male being at the top of the heap, of course. But 'white male' (or female) is not a class category.  This is what left bourgeois politics gets you, and in the smattering of cases in which one finds alleged radicals participating in the organized atheist/etc. movement, this is what you get.

Naturally, given the historical and structural conditions of American society (and several others), white males are going to be at the top of the heap, and prevailing perspectives and priorities at that class level are likely to prevail, accompanied by dollops of tokenism as a gesture of balancing things out. But focusing on the obvious obscures the essentially bourgeois nature of the movement, and thus the slim chances of any anti-bourgeois perspective--wherever it might come from--of gaining the prominence, leadership role, or influence that it might merit.

While the next logical step would be to name names, I'll let you use your imagination. Instead, I want to probe the blogosphere of the hard left and see what they have to say. Left--and specifically Marxist--takes on atheism and religion vary tremendously, and thus cannot be summed up as one generality. What is wrong with various Marxist takes on religion needs to be covered in separate posts. But now I'm searching the blogs for "bourgeois atheism", and here are a few finds.

Boobquake Revisited by EDB, The Fivefold Path, 24 August 2012

While the blogger is certainly justified in adverse reactions to the atheist movement, though feeling at least in part a part of it, he is too uncritical of the demagogic propaganda stemming from certain dissidents.

Much worse is a Maoist blog. I met my first Maoist in high school at the end of the '60s. My first impulse was to punch him in the mouth--I didn't, but he would have deserved it--and my regard for Maoists has not altered since.

"Atheism and Theism" is not a Class Contradiction, M-L-M Mayhem!, 30 August 2012

Aside from the sectarian bankruptcy of the entire politics of this group, and of its take on religion, there are unqualified and unrestricted generalizations such as this:

" . . . it is a club primarily for privileged pro-imperialist petty bourgeois males who imagine that they're subversive for rejecting God while, at the same time, accepting everything capitalist-imperialist society has socialized them into believing is holy."

This characterization certainly fits a number of petty-bourgeois white men . . . also white women, black people, South Asians, and others in the movement, but as a blanket characterization, and by implication a blanket exoneration of others, it is dishonest and demagogic.  But of course such voices exist within the atheist/etc. movement as well.

Various debates are no better. Here are a couple of examples:

Bourgeois Atheism, Revleft, 8 June 2010

A Proletarian critique of 'New' Atheists,, 2 July 2012

We have here utter incoherence. The leftists are as confused as the "mainstream" atheists.

I'm not saying no insightful perspective can be found, but those who rise above the prevailing superficiality are going to find that whatever they choose to call themselves, they won't have as many people on their wavelength as labels might suggest.

Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology (2)

I received a handful of scattered responses via Facebook to my podcast of last Saturday, 11/17/12 Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology.

There is one fellow who has spread the news of my podcast far and wide among atheist/humanist and leftist circles. What he expects to come of this I do not know, or whether he is more optimistic than I about a perceptive reception. I expect nothing from either the atheist/etc. milieu or the left or both in combination.

So far I see a discussion thread on lbo-talk, the listserv of Left Business Observer:

Was something about Atheism & Humanism

So far the greatest appreciation was expressed for the opening quote from C.L.R. James & co., Facing Reality (1958):

C.L.R. James on Descartes & the Division of Labor

We shall see what else comes of this.

Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology

For the past couple of years I have planned to do this podcast. I didn't think I could squeeze all this into an hour, but I got it all in in 3/4 of an hour. Recorded Saturday night, 17 November 2012, here is my latest podcast, installment 7 of my Internet radio show "Studies in a Dying Culture" under the auspices of Think Twice Radio:
11/17/12 Atheism & Humanism as Bourgeois Ideology 

I propose a framework in which the intellectual basis of the atheist - humanist - skeptical movement, particularly in the USA, can be seen as a progressive bourgeois ideology that, while marking an historical advance beyond pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-technological, pre-capitalist, supernaturally based forms of unreason, addresses only one half of the cognitive sources of irrationality of the modern world, and is ill-equipped to grapple with the secular forms of unreason, which can be denoted by the term "ideology". I argue that the Anglo-American intellectual heritage of atheism has never absorbed the indispensable heritage of German philosophy and social theory from Hegel to Marx to 20th century critical theory and thus remains philosophically underdeveloped and ensconced in a naive scientism. I furthermore argue that American atheism / humanism lacks adequate historical perspective due to the historical amnesia induced by the two historical breaks of McCarthyism and Reaganism. To combat historical amnesia I highlight not only relevant intellectual history but the buried history of working class atheism. I also sketch out some relevant philosophical aspects of the history of the American humanist movement beginning with the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933. I then discuss the intellectual consequences of the political repression of the McCarthy era. From there I discuss two prominent influences of the 1960s and 1970s, atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and humanist Paul Kurtz. I highlight Kurtz's dialogue with the Yugoslav Marxist-Humanist philosophers and his failure to learn from the encounter. Finally, I discuss the intellectual shortcomings of the so-called "new atheism" and today's celebrity atheists in the context of the depressing political perspective of our reactionary neoliberal era. I also don't spare the dissidents within the movement from my accusations of intellectual superficiality. I end on a note of bleak pessimism.

46:09 minutes 
This podcast provides a framework for thinking about the atheist/humanist/skeptics subculture in the Anglo-American sphere (and possibly beyond) which is different from anything else you are going to find on the subject.

There are some people who are going to appreciate this podcast. There are also some people who think they appreciate this podcast. There is something essential that experience has taught me about commonality: it is elusive, often illusory.

I do not expect the bulk of my readers, even those among the "progressive" liberal-left segment of the atheist/humanist/etc. community, or the hard left, to share my perspective, whether they react sympathetically or not. Note also that while I say little about the "intellectual superficiality" of the "dissidents within the movement" (i.e. the atheist/etc. movement), those familiar with the current political controversies within that milieu may have an idea of what I'm talking about, whether or not they understand where I'm coming from.  I am not optimistic.

Still, this podcast is badly needed and perhaps it will have a modest impact.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Existentialism in America: black, white, left, right

On Richard Wright and Kierkegaard, an anecdote which C.L.R. James used to relate:
"Kierkegaard is one of the great writers of today. He is one of the men who, during the last twenty or thirty years, modern civilization has recognized as a man whose writings express the modern temperament and the modern personality. And Dick assured me that he was reading Kierkegaard because everything he read in Kierkegaard he had known before. What he was telling me was that he was a black man in the United States and that gave him an insight into what today is the universal opinion and attitude of the modern personality. I believe that is a matter that is not only black studies, but is white studies too. I believe that that is some form of study which is open to any university: Federal City College, Harvard, etc. It is not an ethnic matter. I knew Wright well enough to know that he meant it. I didn’t ask him much because I thought he meant me to understand something. And I understood it. I didn’t have to ask him about that. What there was in Dick’s life, what there was in the experience of a black man in the United States in the 1930s that made him understand everything that Kierkegaard had written before he had read it and the things that made Kierkegaard the famous writer that he is today? That is something that I believe has to be studied."

—— C.L.R. James, "Black Studies and the Contemporary Student" (1969)

Richard Wright and C.L.R. James were great thinkers of the modern condition in the mid-20th century. Their understandings became highlighted in the 1990s, notably by the Black British scholar Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, 1993). Constance Webb, James's second wife and a remarkable personality in her own right, also recognized this about Wright in the 1940s.

Another major theme of James was the difference between "the old world and the new", i.e. Europe and the Americas. He did not cast this exclusively in racial terms, but as you can see, it is one factor he addressed. (A difference can also be argued regarding the appropriation of surrealism in the Caribbean and Latin America.)

But even within the United States, the appropriation of European thought has been widely differentiated, especially between left and right. This work is especially illuminating in this regard:

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Contents: The "drizzly November" of the American soul -- Kierkegaard comes to America -- A Kierkegaardian age of anxiety -- The vogue of French existentialism -- New York intellectuals and French existentialists -- The canon of existentialism -- Cold rage : Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison -- Norman Mailer’s existential errand -- Robert Frank’s existential vision -- Camus’s rebels -- Existential feminists : Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan -- Conclusion: Existentialism today and tomorrow.

Here is a review I cited back in 2006:

Adamowski, T.H. "Out on Highway 61: Existentialism in America," University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 4, Fall 2005, pp. 913-933.

In Cotkin's book we can learn of the reactionary role played by the appropriation of Kierkegaard in the 1940s.  Here is one taste from Adamowski's review:
Cotkin never forgets the religious sources of existentialism, and thus Lowrie exists in his book as more than translator and editor. He had grown weary of the vapid ‘social gospel’ of 1920s and 1930s America, with its assumption that one might be virtuous and close to God merely because one held progressive social views. What does God care whether one is a progressive? Kierkegaard’s supreme indifference towards social moralizing offered escape from the anodyne social gospel, and Lowrie took up his own scholarly place in a tradition that would come to include, in Europe, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans (1968), as well as, in America, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1945) and The Irony of American History (1952).

This is quite different from the leftist engagement with Camus and Sartre in the 1950s and '60s.  Existentialism was popular among black as well as white intellectuals in this period.  But then consider black existentialism in the 1940s, in particular Wright's engagement with Kierkegaard. I actually got some "oral history" (actually in correspondence) from Constance Webb on Wright's engagement with existentialism, which I will have to publish one day. I don't think anyone has made a study of Wright's appropriation of Kierkegaard compared to the generally reactionary role Kierkegaard's thought played in the USA in the 1940s. Wright comes to quite different conclusions in his 1953 novel The Outsider.

For more on Richard Wright, see my web sites:

Richard Wright Study Guide

The Richard Wright Connection (The C.L.R. James Institute)

Interestingly, the Richard Wright quotes collected in Wikipedia draw substantially on my work as a source:

Richard Wright - Wikiquote

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lenin on political agitation, liberalism, & the Russian Orthodox Church

V. I. Lenin, 'Political Agitation and “The Class Point of View”' [Iskra, No. 16, February 1, 1902], in Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 5 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), pp. 337-343.

Here is a sample:
 “What does our ’intellectual’, frivolous crowd that instigates and applauds the Stakhoviches care for the affairs of our sacred orthodox faith and our time-honoured attitude towards it?”... Once again, so much the worse for you, gentlemen, champions of the autocracy, the orthodox faith, and the national essence. A fine system indeed our police ridden autocracy must be, if it has permeated even religion with the spirit of the prison-cell, so that the “Stakhoviches” (who have no firm convictions in matters of religion, but who are interested, as we shall see, in preserving a stable religion) become utterly indifferent (if not actually hostile) to this notorious “national” faith. "... They call our faith a delusion!! They mock at us because, thanks to this ’delusion’, we fear and try to avoid sin and we carry out our obligations uncomplainingly, no matter how severe they may be; because we find the strength and courage to bear sorrow and privations and forbear pride in times of success and good fortune...." So! The orthodox faith is dear to them because it teaches people to bear misery “uncomplainingly”. What a profitable faith it is indeed for the governing classes! In a society so organised that an insignificant minority enjoys wealth and power, while the masses constantly suffer “privations” and bear “severe obligations”, it is quite natural for the exploiters to sympathise with a religion that teaches people to bear “uncomplainingly” the hell on earth for the sake of an alleged celestial paradise. But in its zeal Moskovskiye Vedomosti became too garrulous. So garrulous, in fact, that unwittingly it spoke the truth. We read on: "... They do not suspect that if they, the Stakhoviches, eat well, sleep peacefully, and live merrily, it is thanks to this ’delusion’.”

The sacred truth! This is precisely the case. It is because religious “delusions” are so widespread among the masses that the Stakhoviches and the Oblomovs,” and all our capitalists who live by the labour of the masses, and even Moskovskiye Vedomosti itself, “sleep peacefully”. And the more education spreads among the people, the more will religious prejudices give way to socialist consciousness, the nearer will be the day of victory for the proletariat —the victory that will emancipate all oppressed classes from the slavery they endure in modern society.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair (2)

As I have other priorities now, instead of turning my notes into a narrative, I will just reproduce my raw notes cum page references. This should at least give you an idea of O'Hair's wildly vacillating, contradictory and unstable self-positioning.

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Order read: chapters 4-7, Introduction, 1-3, 8, Epilogue [disappearance & murder].


2ff: history of atheism

Octavius Brooks Frothingham: Free Religious Association, 1867
Felix Adler: Ethical Culture Federation, 1876
Emma Goldman

American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, 1925
Clarence Darrow
HL Mencken

9: O’Hair most influenced by AHA.

Humanist Fellowship, U of Chicago, 1927
Humanist Manifestos I & II

14-15: O’Hair not modest or low profile.  Also an anarchist, feminist, integrationist, internationalist.

Socially ostracized.


20: changed indelibly by Great Depression
25: marriage to steelworker (1941), WW II
27: William Murray born of another man

32: '50s radicalism.
Rejected ADA, attended meetings of SLP. Feminist, anti-suburban

33: Michael Fiorillo; Jan born
34: her kids & religion
35: against bourgeois morality. Interested in many causes. At odds with humanity.
36: M’s glowing account of domestic life. Wm’s refutation.
37: Sputnik --> socialism -->; SLP --> SWP
38: went to Howard, disillusioned, left. 1959: applied for Soviet citizenship.
39: goes to Paris, frustrated by efforts to emigrate to USSR
40: against prayer in Baltimore schools: 1959
43: 1959—M fights the schools.
ACLU & Baltimore Ethical Culture Society support this effort. (others not)
46: red-baiting, publicity, issue of truancy, ACLU hesitant
50: Jewish parents also stood up. ACLU recalcitrant.
51: M ditched Commie lawyer Harold Buchman, stuck with Jewish lawyer Leonard Kerpelman. Buchman complained about M’s association with anti-semitic Truth-Seeker.
52: Kerpelman bottom-feeder, orthodox Jew
55: Wm in high school. Support. AAAA.
55: Charles Smith (AAAA, Truth-Seeker) a bigot. M disliked fellow atheists as petty people.
56: May 15, 1962 --> Supreme Court

CHAPTER 2: Murray v. Curlett

62: Niebuhr extreme anti-communist propagandist, justified execution of Rosenbergs
legal precendents
72: Jews & others for Engel decision against school prayer
Catholics & conservative Protestants against
75: FBI opened file on M. M signs protest against RFK’s attempt to shut down Daily Worker.
M fired from city social work job.
76: 1962: managed Red bookshop, started nonprofit, newsletter.
78: criticism comes with financial support.
79: other groups hesitant to support her. Only a few supported with briefs.
92: Justice Stewart denied parallel with Brown v Board of Ed.

CHAPTER 3: “The Most Hated Woman in America”

94: Murray/Schempp decision affected 41% of public school districts. Supported by Jews and liberal Protestants.
Huge backlash. Attempts at Constitutional amendment.
Murray vs Schempp: M’s claims of her key role
100-2: M alienated everyone.
103: 1963—M forms organization
104: JFK assassination, Faor Play for Cuba, expunged records of any connection to Oswald. Later boasted about kicking out Marxists.
111: police melee. Arrested.
114: fled to Hawaii
116: troublemaking in Hawaii
117: other atheists fight M
118: fight with Wm (his accusations—mentally unbalanced?).
M in Life magazine.
120: Sat Evening Post article, 1964. M for anarchism, against communism.
120 ff: Post interview.

123: “I really don’t care that much about atheism. . . I’ve always been more interested in politics and social reform.” (Post interview)

124: Liston (Post interviewer): M full of paradoxes.
Robin born. Extradition appeal defeated.
135: Playboy interview.
Fled to Mexico.
126-7: Wm settles case. Distances self from student radicals, mom.
M arrested in Mexico.
129: extradited. Freed.

CHAPTER 4: “The Atheist”

M wanted a real man, but also intelligent and gentle. Married Richard O’Hair.

133-4: AA demographics: 1968: members live mostly in small communities nationwide. Some teens, some real old. Average member: 45 w/ 2 kids.
Mi claims little backsliding. Doesn’t like de-converts from “wild religions”. 10% from atheist homes. 40% Republicans, 10% Birchites, 40% Dems, rest on the left.
M defines freethought as rationalist and materialist.
136: M’s publicity campaign.
5 April 66: Post reports on M at Howard U speaks to 250 on church tax exemptions.
137: More aggressive in tone and on variety of issues
137-40: against Vietnam War, blames churches. Sees is as Christian-Buddhist war. Catholic Church bolstered corrupt rulers of S. Vietnam. Cardinal Spellman and war on godless communism. 1972 revelation of Protestant churches as stockholders in arms industry.
1969: Now on speaking platform with other notables.

Mail pro & con
Poor Richard’s Universal Life Church
Against NASA
Expands ops in ‘70s
Protests Pope
Protests FBI surveillance
God on currency

166-7: Interested in atheism in other countries. India. Claims most Indian philosophers are atheists. Quotes Debiprasad Chattopadhya. Enthusiastic about Gora’s atheist center. 1970: Gora toured internationally. 1978: O’Hairs visited India. United World Atheists. 1979: Edamarku visited Austin.

168: in 1976, M claims to have purged her organization of communists. 1976, 1979: Claims to be an anarchist. Interested in disarmament.

CHAPTER 5: “Why I Am an Atheist”

Kantian ethics

173-5: M vs other atheists!
174: against philosophers
175: practical atheism

178: contra agnosticism
178-9: “Humanists”

180: FCC bias
185ff: Radio: prominent freethinkers in history
Paine, Ethan Allen, Lincoln, Jefferson
Separationism: Holyoke, Kneeland
US Grant on taxing churches.
Taxing churches
School release time
200: Bradlaugh
201: Bradlaugh vs poverty of spirit
202-3: Ingersoll a favorite
203: feminism
206: Diderot & nun.
La Religeuse (nun) film

CHAPTER 6: Articulating the atheist position

On holy writings & historicity of Jesus, science & religion, On Catholicism & the rest of Xianity, on taking possession of the young, Freedom Under Siege [religion & social control], church & state, state aid to parochial schools

230-2: feminism. Troubled relation to ‘60s women.
236-7: 1947-54: American civil religion under Cold War/McCarthyism

CHAPTER 7: O’Hair’s Prominence Recedes

William’s messed-up life
1977 debates with evangelist Bob Harrington
1978: divorce case unsettled, M’s husband Richard dies

259-61: Wm loses his mind. 24 Jan 1980: conversion to Xianity

265: oaths—successful lawsuits
268: financial problems
269: anti-Reagan
270: anti-communism reliant on religion
New Right. Aggressive foreign policy, favoring wealthy.
Advocated arms control, sharing wealth.
272: pessimistic
273: visited USSR in 1989, Russians interested in religious literature.
Health deteriorating.
274: 1984—worked for Larry Flynt
275: Flynt went back on deal when released from prison
1984 election—M disgruntled with “ruthless rampant capitalism”
276: no more lawsuits, situation hopeless.

277: diary entry Nov. 1985: “Most persons who think they are Atheists are ass-holes and nit-wits.” We’re probably the only atheists. Temptation to withdraw into self, become rigid & dictatorial.

CHAPTER 8:             O’Hair Retires

281: Wm a rabid right-winger
283: early ‘80s, rebellion against M. 1978, Jon Murray’s anti-semitic outburst.
284: 1978 Lincoln’s Birthday Massacre, war with chapters. FFRF founded.

285-7: M’s anti-semitism, including material in AA magazine. M denied she was anti-semitic. Recognized distinction between religion and ethnicity. Sherwin Wine’s Humanistic Judaism—entertained but rejected idea. You can’t be a Jew and an atheist.
287: anti-Israel, gay-bashing.
288: encouraged gays to form own chapters. Racist remarks about blacks, angry with them as Baptists, subservient. Claims to have made remarks to MLK. But judge people as individuals.

290: plans. AA stats.
290-1: 1990 report, Atheists, the Last Minority.
74% male, 96% white, 52% single, 25 % 1 college degree + 22% more than one; 62% own own homes; 32 % under 40, 32 % 40-50, 36 % over 50; 65% middle class. 83 % vote—35% independents, 38% Democrats, 9% Republicans, 9% Libertarians; 12% would vote socialist if viable option .
See also footnote #46, p. 362, 1981 stats.

291: atheists not rationalists, humanists, etc., but atheists. Liberation of mind more important than black, etc. liberation. God-liberation paramount. But pessimistic.

292: society heading into neofascism

295: 1990 crisis. Fight with Truth-Seeker. Jon in charge, a pain in the ass. AA losing court cases & money.
299: disputes over finances, accounting. Charges of corruption.

302: stats, member share of atheists, impact disputed. Leaders admit atheists are stubbornly independent, fractious.

306: 1993 final interview: pessimistic. Sums up self as “Woman, atheist, anarchist”.

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair

I read this biography early in 2008. Here are a few of my notes.

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Publisher description.

1/3/08: Atheist in a Bunker Reassessing Madalyn MurrayO'Hair by Bill Cooke, Free Inquiry, Volume 23, Number 2.

It's an interesting portrait of O'Hair's dubious leadership style, and helps to explain the creepiness I experienced here [in Washington, DC] two decades ago.

I object only to the self-serving concluding paragraph:

Atheism states only what one does not believe in; the next step is to move forward and determine what one does believe in. Exploring the realms of naturalism and humanism are essential to giving atheism a positive orientation. This is where Paul Kurtzs contribution has been incomparably better grounded than that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Kurtz represents a different constituency, much more polished, upper crust--a technocratic elite.  One of his greatest heroes is the McCarthyite scumbag Sidney Hook, a major player in the suppression of academic freedom.  I don't call this well-grounded at all; it's just differently grounded. 

As for the philosophical foundations, from American Atheist's own declaration of purpose, its philosophy is grounded in materialism.  Kurtz's is in naturalism with a significant influx from the pragmatic tradition.  Kurtz is a professional philosopher, so he has the greater advantage, but in the matter of specific philosophical grounding, what makes his philosophical stance superior?  People can of course call themselves more "positive" all they like--but without a concrete referent for what this positivity applies to--it's just rhetoric.

I never liked the mentality of either the upscale "humanists" or the misanthropic social misfits of American Atheists.  During the aforementioned time period I was a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was my favorite organization.

4/21/08: As it happens, I'm reading a biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. While she ended up lashing out at the world in a rather unfocused manner, underneath she was a progressive through and through. She was a product of a rigid, repressive, hypocritical society, and her rebelliousness boiled over.  The only time she could thrive to the extent she did was in the '60s and early '70s--before and after was pure hell. She was born in 1919: I don't think even my mother could imagine what that's like.

4/28/08: I finished the biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which left me depressed.  I did not read the book in normal order from beginning to end.  I began with the middle chapters, when she was at the height of her influence and whatever powers she had, i.e. from 1965 to the early-'70s, and then I read the chapter on the decline of her influence.  Then I read from the beginning of the book about her troubled early life up to the aftermath of her landmark Supreme Court victory.  Then I resumed where I left off, where she declines as the Reagan years advance and her son Jon's behavior proves to be as bad or worse, and as we know Madalyn with Jon and Robin come to a grisly end.  But just as depressing is the negative side of Madalyn's personality, for which the repressive society in which she grew up is probably not solely responsible.  To be aggressive and strident is one thing, to be impossible to deal with at all sabotages one's efforts and guarantees an essentially lonely life.  Moreover, her ideas and behavior were sharply internally contradictory, a factor which upped the inevitable tensions of her situation.  Even the progressive side of her political ideas could not advance, as they were neutralized by a universal hostility to humanity--an understandable sentiment up to a point--which she could not rationally manage.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Why Stephen Bond left the "skeptics"

WHY I AM NO LONGER A SKEPTIC by Stephen Bond, Stephensplatz blog, 28 Aug 2011

While I share the impetus toward derision of the skeptics movement, for most of the same reasons, this hyperbolic argument is deficient in certain respects.The author is more philosophically perspicacious than 98% of the people who could be counted as having some relation to the atheist/humanist/skeptics movement, but the downward pull of bourgeois thought, even left bourgeois thought, is difficult to resist. This fellow is on the right track, but his reasoning and philosophical-methodological perspective need tightening up.

(1) The overblown accusations of sexism & racism, both in the way specific examples are addressed and the phenomenon is generalized to the entire movement, detract from the argument.

 (2) Neoliberalism: the author is missing something here: the way neoliberalism impacts skepticism is not that they are all neoliberals, but that neoliberalism has also pulled the left to the right.

(3) Feminism, etc.: the author doesn't see that bourgeois feminism and diversity management are also deficient & affected by the neoliberal order.

(4) The treatment of metaphor in science & its improper (and proper?) uses is badly handled. What other sources of knowledge other than science could be more useful are not specified. Had the author moved to the question of social theory & ideology critique, he would have done better.

(5) Politics: while the author is correct about pseudoscience (such as racist pseudoscience) flourishing in liberal democracies, he is rather vague about the relation between science & politics, other than the assertion than science is necessarily political.

(6) The author does not adequately address the relationship between liberal abstract ideals & their realization or non-realization in actual societies.

(7) Skeptics issues: note comments on alternative medicine, sociobiology, linguistics, economics. Aside from linguistics, I'm inclined to agree with the author. He could have said more about economics, since Michael Shermer is one of the leading purveyors of pseudoscience in this area.

(8) Harmlessness of paranormal superstition: this was my position in the '70s, but no longer. As for ridiculing the disenfranchised, their superstitious mindset is ripe for the pickings by fascism.

(9) Skepticism as dogmatism? Of course.

(10) Positivism: this treatment needs treatment. Positivism (in a loose sense) really is a problem. The fawning over every statement by Dawkins, the scientism of Harris, or the authoritative pronouncements of Hawking on the death of philosophy, are all indicators of how deeply uncritical & positivist in tendency is the whole atheist movement. Science, scientific method, etc. repeatedly endlessly, along with the obliteration of social theory & philosophy: this is how they do.

(11) Author's disillusionment: he had illusions in the first place. His were not mine.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lenin: On Religion

I knew that this little book existed, but it is not easy to find these days. I wasn't sure whether I had a copy buried in my archive, but I found one. I know I read this many many years ago, and found it eye-opening. I've already blogged about several of the essays anthologized here. The ones I missed on my own, but which are included in this collection, are: (1) Tolstoy; (2) Classes and Parties; (3) Working Women's Congress; (4) Draft Programme.

Lenin, V. I. On Religion. 3rd rev. ed. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969. 83 pp.

Preface to the Russian Edition

"Socialism and Religion," in Collected Works, Volume 10 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), pp. 83-87. Originally published in Novaya Zhizn, No. 28, December 3, 1905.

"Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution," in Collected Works, Volume 15 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), pp. 202-209. Originally published in Proletary No. 35, September 11 (24), 1908.

"The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion" [translated by Andrew Rothstein and Bernard Issacs], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), Volume 15, pp. 402-413. From Proletary, No. 45, May 13 (26), 1909. (Also available on the From Marx to Mao site.)

"Classes and Parties in Their Attitude to Religion and the Church,"in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), Volume 15, pp. 414-424. Originally published in Sotsial-Demokrat, No. 6, June 4 (17), 1909.

V. I. Lenin to Maxim Gorky, written on November 13 or 14, 1913 [translated by Andrew Rothstein], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume 35, pp. 121-124 [#55]. First published in Pravda No. 51, March 2, 1924. Sent from Cracow to Capri. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

V. I. Lenin to Maxim Gorky, written in the second half of November 1913 [translated by Andrew Rothstein], in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), Volume 35, pp. 127-129 [#58]. First published in 1924 in Lenin Miscellany I. Sent from Cracow to Capri. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)

Speech at the First All-Russia Congress of Working Women, November 19, 1918, in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), Volume 28, pp. 180-182. [On Religion states: Newspaper report published in Izvestia, no. 253, November 20, 1918.]

From the Draft Programme of the R.C.P.(B.: Section of the Programme Dealing With Religion, in Collected Works, 4th English Edition (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), Volume 29, p. 134 (out of pp. 97-140).

"The Tasks of the Youth Leagues", Speech Delivered At The Third All-Russia Congress of The Russian Young Communist League, in Lenin's Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), Vol. 31, pp. 283-99. Speech written and.or delivered on October 2, 1920, published in Pravda, Nos. 221, 222 and 223, October 5, 6 and 7, 1920. (Also available on the From Marx to Mao site.)

"On the Significance of Militant Materialism" (12 March 1922), in Lenin’s Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), Volume 33, 1972, pp. 227-236. First published in Pod Znamenem Marksizma, No. 3, March 1922. (Text also available on From Marx to Mao site.)


Name Index

Monday, August 6, 2012

William R. Jones, Jr., author of 'Is God a White Racist?', dies

Here is an obituary:

Rest in Peace – Rev. Bill R. Jones, Rev Josh Pawelek, July 20, 2012

Jones died on Friday, July 13, 2012, close to his 79th birthday.

I have posted about him several times. One of my posts is referenced in this obituary:
Ralph Dumain has a helpful review of Is God a White Racist? here

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Futurology as bourgeois ideology: from the Cold War to now (2)

In my previous post, I mentioned this book:

The Future of Society: A Critique of Modern Bourgeois Philosophical and Socio-political Conceptions, edited by Murad Saifulin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973.

Completing my quick scan of the book, I concluded that it was even more bankrupt than I had imagined. The book is saturated with such grandiose propaganda, the ideological content of western futurism pales in comparison to such bombast. It is also remarkable how poor a critique of bourgeois futurology this is.

Bourgeois futurology conceals any systematic understanding of society, renders the underlying properties of capitalism invisible so that it is not even raised as a question, and projects technocratic solutions as triumphing over whatever laundry list of questions it addresses. The occlusion of social critique by the techniques of forecasting is perhaps comparable to the pseudo-scientific basis of bourgeois economics.

Yet the Soviet approach delineated in this book is concerned primarily with defending its side of the Cold War, demonstrating the superiority of its system and the inevitable victory of communism. Otherwise the Soviet vision is equally as technocratic. As the Soviet system is competing with the capitalist system almost on its own terms while disguising its own nature, its critique of bourgeois futurology must itself be truncated.

The missing prediction of the demise of the Soviet Union itself is itself a commentary on the validity of this perspective.

How different the presuppositions of an unlimited future seemed back in 1973 (though it must be noted that the energy crisis threw serious doubt into the viability of such a prospect). Here is one futuristic vision from the Soviet Union of 1973 that parallels even the current fantasies of the West. This is a section on the future colonization of outer space:

Future problems of the exploration of the Earth and outer space

Best laid plans of mice and men . . . then, and now?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Futurology as bourgeois ideology: from the Cold War to now

Imaginings about the future, whether driven by technological projection, science fiction, or questions of political and social organization, don't have a specific starting point in time. Obviously, with the massive political and scientific-technological change in the 19th century, avant-garde projections about the future became the order of the day, coinciding with the birth of real science fiction. But the century of futuristic imagination is the 20th century.

I can only speak about it personally from the standpoint of the United States. Outside of the genre of utopian/dystopian fiction, the prototypes of which mostly originated in Europe, most imaginative projections of the future I encountered growing up were technological in nature. The prospect of space exploration was part of this scenario. Naturally science fiction ran ahead of reality, but science fiction authors were also advocates of space exploration, and the prospect of eventual colonization of other planets was one futuristic scenario.

Of course the 1950s and '60s were an era in which, the dangers notwithstanding, there seemed to be unlimited vistas for the future. The Club of Rome's report on the limits of growth and the first Earth Day in 1970 rained on this parade somewhat, but could not wash it out.  We live in a very different time now: we know we're doomed, but deny it.

In the '70s I became wary of futurology as a quasi-scientific endeavor. I endured a few three-hour lectures by Buckminster Fuller, then all the rage, and I got disgusted with him. I checked out some of the literature. I remember The Futurist magazine. It became clearer to me that this intellectual discipline was highly selective in its methodology, interests, and purposes, and that it was fundamentally ideological in nature. Here is one "in" to the field:

Futures studies - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

One place to get a contrary perspective, with a mixture of critique and mystification, was the Soviet Union, the USA's arch-enemy. I vaguely recall seeing a title or two critical of the futurology racket. The web site aims to list and digitize Soviet publications in English translation. Two or three titles here are relevant.

Probably the most important, as it is cited elsewhere, is not available online, but here is the reference:

Shakhnazarov, G. K. [Georgi Khosroevich] Futurology Fiasco: A Critical Study of Non-Marxist Concepts of How Society Develops. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.

This book is available online:

The Future of Society: A Critique of Modern Bourgeois Philosophical and Socio-political Conceptions, edited by Murad Saifulin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973.

This book traces ideas about the future from far back in the past. As for critique of bourgeois futurology, the entire argument is predicated on the premises of the Cold War, obsessed with the role of anti-communism in bourgeois thought. Whatever criticism of western conceptions might be fruitful is drowned in ideological propaganda for the Soviet system. Even by reasonable standards of the time this aspect of the argument is a botched batch of verbiage. But now that the Soviet Union has been extinct for two decades, the argument looks even more ridiculous. This is a shame, because there was really a critique to be had, irrespective of any apologia for the USSR.

Another book is included in this web site. The first 99 pages are supposed to be available, but the link to the PDF is not working now:

Streltsova, N[inel]. Looking into the Future. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987.

Whether there is anything of a methodological nature beyond specific forecasting for the 21st century I do not know.

While I have not researched the matter, obviously one need not be dependent on anything the Soviets produced to construct a critique. And of course now neoliberalism has conquered the world, which changes the priorities of the ideological struggle over the future. While there is no effective institutional competition for the neoliberal technocratic vision for the future, the ideological delusion of the glories of a technological future is more self-deceiving than ever.

While technologies can be imagined which well could be developed over the coming half-century, the gap between reality and the frontiers of imagination has narrowed. A telling symptom is the banality and lack of imagination in the premises of the science fiction and fantasy television and film entertainment presented to us. Thanks to the advanced technology of real life and visual production, the special effects that can now be produced are more spectacular than ever, effectively distracting from the thematic poverty and uncritical nature of what is being produced and consumed. Surface sophistication effectively occludes underlying philosophical insipidity.

The elephant in the room was always the capitalist system, a critique of which was always tacitly censored, and now globalized capitalism, even without an imminent threat of thermonuclear war, which once loomed so large (and perhaps will again), is on the verge of destroying the whole world. Of course our popular culture is full of disaster scenarios, and the environmental crisis is no secret. Still, glorious fantasies about the technological future are promulgated and eagerly lapped up by devotees of science and technology, oblivious to the inconvenient truth that bourgeois reason is at the end of its rope.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Death-of-God theology meets jazz

I vaguely heard of Death-of-God theology back in the '60s when it was briefly in vogue, but didn't know anything about it. My first contact with the writings of Thomas J.J. Altizer was some time between 1970s and '90s, via his treatment of William Blake.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said (see this blog) that music was the one thing that could make him believe in God. I understand the sentiment. Nevertheless, I can't feel the same way I once did about many things as I reexamine the past. Here is how I dealt with the mysticism associated with avant-garde jazz:

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians

Now make of this statement by Altizer what you will:
"The power embodied in jazz violently shatters our interior, as its pure rhythm both returns us to an archaic identity and hurls us into a new and posthistoric universality. Most startling of all, the “noise” of jazz releases a new silence, a silence marked by the absence of every center of selfhood, the disappearance of the solitude of the “I.” That silence is the silence of a new solitude, an absolute solitude which has finally negated and reversed every unique and interior ground of consciousness, thereby releasing the totality of consciousness in a total and immediate presence And we rejoice when confronted with this solitude, just as we rejoice in hearing jazz, for the only true joy is the joy of loss, the joy of having been wholly lost and thereby wholly found again."

— Thomas J.J. Altizer, Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today, 1980, pp. 107-108.
 SOURCE: "Thomas J. J. Altizer (1927-)," edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Wilfredo H. Tangunan and Andrew Irvine, Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 12: on the passion of the intellectual life

I need to source this quote from Feuerbach:
Is it at all possible for the feeling man to resist feeling, for the loving man to resist love, for the rational man to resist reason? Who has not experienced the irresistible power of musical sounds? And what else is this power if not the power of feeling? Music is the language of feeling—a musical note is sonorous feeling or feeling communicating itself. Who has not experienced the power of love, or at least not heard of it? Which is the stronger—love or the individual man? Does man possess love, or is it rather love that possesses man? When, impelled by love, a man gladly sacrifices his life for his beloved, is this his own strength that makes him overcome death, or is it rather the power of love? And who has not experienced the power of thought, given that he has truly experienced the activity of thinking? When, submerged in deep reflection, you forget both yourself and your surroundings, is it you who controls reason, or is it rather reason that controls and absorbs you? Does not reason celebrate its greatest triumph over you in your enthusiasm for science? Is not the drive for knowledge simply an irresistible and all-conquering power? And when you suppress a passion, give up a habit, in short, when you win a victory over yourself, is this victorious power your own personal power existing, so to speak, in isolation, or is it rather the energy of will, the power of morality which imposes its rule over you and fills you with indignation of yourself and your individual weaknesses?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 11: culture vs. religion

Christianity came into the world long after the invention of bread, wine, and other elements of civilization, at a time when it was too late to deify their inventors, when these inventions had long since lost their religious significance. Christianity introduced another element of civilization: morality. Christianity wished to provide a cure not for physical or political evils, but for moral evils, for sin. Let us go back to our example of wine in order to clarify the difference between Christianity and paganism, that is, common popular paganism. How, said the Christians to the heathen, can you deify wine? What sort of benefit is it? Consumed immoderately, it brings death and ruin. It is a benefit only when consumed in moderation, with wisdom, that is, when drunk in a moral way; thus the utility or harmfulness of a thing depends not on the thing itself, but on the moral use that is made of it. In this the Christians were right. But Christianity made morality into a religion, it made the moral law into a divine commandment; it transformed a matter of autonomous human activity into a matter of faith.

In Christianity faith is the principle, the foundation of the moral law: "From faith come good works." Christianity has no wine god, no goddess of bread or grain, no Ceres, no Poseidon, god of the sea and of navigation; it knows no god of the smithy, no Vulcan; yet it has a general God, or rather, a moral God, a God of the art of becoming moral and attaining beatitude. And with this God the Christians to this day oppose all radical, all thoroughgoing civilization, for a Christian can conceive of no morality, no ethical human life, without God; he therefore derives morality from God, just as the pagan poet derived the laws and types of poetry from the gods and goddesses of poetry, just as the pagan smith derived the tricks of his trade from the god Vulcan. But just as today smiths and metalworkers in general know their trade without having any particular god as their patron, so men will some day master the art of leading moral and happy lives without a God. Indeed, they will be truly moral and happy only when they no longer have a God, when they no longer need religion; for as long as an art is still imperfect, as long as it is in its swaddling clothes, it requires the protection of religion. For through religion man compensates for the deficiencies in his culture; and it is only from lack of culture that, like the Egyptian priest who makes sacraments of his rudimentary medicines, he makes sacraments of his moral remedies, makes sacred dogmas of his rudimentary ideas, and makes divine commandments and revelations of his own thoughts and emotions.

In short, religion and culture are incompatible, although culture, insofar as religion is the first and oldest form of it, can be termed the true and perfect religion, so that only a truly cultivated man is truly religious. This statement, however, is an abuse of words, for superstitious and inhuman notions are always bound up with the word “religious”; by its very nature religion comprises anticultural elements; for it strives to perpetuate ideas, customs, inventions that man made in his childhood, and to impose them as the laws of his adult age. Where man needs a God to tell him how to behave—as He commanded the Israelites to relieve themselves in a place apart—man is at the religious stage, but also at a profoundly uncivilized stage. Where man behaves properly of his own accord, because his own nature, his own reason and inclination tell him to, the need for religion ceases and culture takes its place. And just as it now seems ridiculous and incredible that the most natural rule of decency should once have been a religious commandment, so one day, when man has progressed beyond our present pseudo culture, beyond the age of religious barbarism, he will find it hard to believe that, in order to practice the laws of morality and brotherly love, he once had to regard them as the commandments of a God who rewarded observance and punished nonobservance. 

— Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 23rd Lecture, pp. 212-213

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Paul Nizan watching the watchdogs

My introduction to Paul Nizan was via his indictment of establishment philosophy, The Watchdogs: Philosophers and the Established Order. There was one section that caught my attention at the time, which I then digitized:

Here two different types of philosophy are addressed: a purely technical philosophy, as in philosophy of science, which Nizan has no intention of opposing, and a philosophy that purports in some way to address the human condition, which Nizan indicts.

Rereading this now, I paid more attention to the text and context. An American must read the book through foreign lenses, extracting from what is dated or situation-specific that which can be learned and recalibrated to apply to our current reality.

Nizan's youthful rebellion resonates—as Sartre suggests in his Foreword to Aden, Arabie—to contemporary youth rebellions. This was a youth probably more bourgeois than any we've known, but the rebellion against the bankruptcy of bourgeois society is familiar enough, and thus Nizan's story is both relevant and limited on just those grounds.

I have extracted a few fragments from Sartre's Foreword as well as to references to Simone de Beauvoir where some combination of Sartre, Nizan, de Beauvoir, and Leibniz appears:

Returning to The Watchdogs, note that Nizan's complaint is specifically French. Nizan rebels against a specifically French generalized idealist philosophy which purports to maintain a Platonic detachment from vulgar materiality but which in fact colludes with and is supported by a grimy bourgeois reality. Related to this is the French intellectual rebellion against “humanism”, which would mean something different from what humanism concerns itself with in the anglophone world were it not for the importation of postmodernism. The French secular intellectual religion was a Cartesian hypostatization of “man”, which the left bourgeois intelligentsia of a later generation was intent to put down, a concern that ought to be irrelevant to the rest of us.

In Nizan we also find a familiar yearning to abandon the ivory tower and live a life of action fighting the bourgeois order. Toward the end of The Watchdogs we see Nizan's commitment to the French Communist Party and advocacy of the USSR, which was later to terminate with the Hitler-Stalin Pact, upon which the Communists assaulted Nizan's reputation.

In a fresh extract from this work I aim to highlight the most abstract and extensive in scope of passages illustrating Nizan's perspective:

I've made further notes on this book I hope to make publicly presentable.

Turning to Aden, Arabie, we find a comparable indictment of bourgeois society, based on disillusionment experienced in an exotic colonial locale. In addition to some interesting ruminations, Nizan's writing—in English translation—is beautiful. Here is an extract containing some interesting philosophical reflections and illustrative of Nizan's stylistic excellence:

Additional quotations and comments may be forthcoming. While I have focused on Nizan's more abstract statements, I need to emphasize that Nizan's descriptive powers should not be overlooked.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 10: science & history

“Anatomy, physiology, medicine, chemistry know nothing about the soul, God, etc. We only know about them from history.” — Ludwig Feuerbach

I haven't sourced this quote. I found it in one of the secondary works I've been reading. It's different from what I've been quoting from Feuerbach, which emphasizes nature, the concrete, and immediacy. But emphasizing nature is not equivalent to emphasizing the natural sciences. Feuerbach's dictum would contradict today's "new atheist" conceit that religion can be read off directly from evolutionary theory and brain science. Of course, we have to know something about the biological underpinnings of imagination, projection, etc. to determine both the basis and propensity for the idealistic inversion of reality, but I've been arguing along similar lines: we can't understand these supernaturalist concepts from raw physical science alone, excising real history.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 9: Lectures

Concerning the political views stated in these lectures, only this brief observation. Aristotle has already said in his Politics—which treats of almost all our present‑day problems, though of course in the spirit of antiquity—that it is necessary not only to know the best form of government, but also to know what form is suited to what men, for even the best form of government is not suited to all men. Thus I wholly agree with those who from an historical point of view, that is, a point of view taking account of space and time, regard constitutional monarchy—true constitutional monarchy, that is—as the only form of government that is practicable, suitable for us, and therefore reasonable. But when it is maintained that monarchy is the one and only absolutely rational form of government, regardless of space and time, that is, of this particular time (even a millennium is a particular time) and this particular place (even Europe is only one place, one point in the world), then I protest and maintain that the republic, the democratic republic is the form of government which reason must recognize to be consonant with human nature and therefore best, that constitutional monarchy is the Ptolemaic system of politics while the republic is its Copernican system, and that in the future of mankind Copernicus will therefore triumph over Ptolemy in politics just as he has already triumphed in astronomy, even though the Ptolemaic system was formerly represented by philosophers and scholars as unshakable “scientific truth.”

— Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Additions and Notes #16, pp. 336-337.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 8: Lectures

Where all good things come from divine goodness, all evil must necessarily stem from diabolical malice. The two notions are inseparable. But to blame an evil will for the natural phenomena that are opposed to my egoism is an obvious sign of barbarism. To convince ourselves that this is so, there is no need to go back to Xerxes, who, according to Herodotus, punished the Hellespont with three hundred lashes in his rage at the disobedience of the sea; there is no need of a trip to Madagascar, where babies who give their mothers trouble and pain during pregnancy and childbirth are strangled, since they must obviously be evil. Right before our eyes we can see how our barbarous and ignorant governments put the blame for every historical necessity and human development that is not to their liking on the ill will of individuals; we see ignorant boors mistreat their cattle, their children, their sick, simply because they take the failings or peculiarities of nature for willful obstinacy, and everywhere we see the rabble gleefully attributing a man’s natural failings, which he cannot possibly help, to his ill will. Accordingly, it is also a sign of men’s ignorance, barbarism, egoism, and their inability to look beyond themselves, when they attribute the benefits of nature to a good or divine will.

Diflerentiation—I am not you, you are not I—this is the basic condition and principle of all culture and humanity. But the man who attributes the workings of nature to someone’s will fails to differentiate between himself and nature, and consequently his attitude toward nature is not what it should be. The proper attitude toward an object is an attitude consonant with its nature and its dissimilarity to myself; such an attitude is not a religious one, but neither is it irreligious as is supposed by the vulgarians, learned or common, who are able only to distinguish between belief and unbelief, religion and irreligion, but are unaware of a third and higher principle above them both. Kindly give me a good harvest, dear earth, says the religious man; “whether the earth wants to or not, it must yield me fruit,” says the irreligious man, Polyphemus. But the true man, who is neither religious nor irreligious, says: The earth will give me fruit if I give it what is appropriate to its nature; it does not will to give, nor must it give—“must” implies reluctance and coercion—no, it will give only if I for my part have fulfilled all the conditions under which it can give, or rather produce; for nature gives me nothing, I myself must take everything, at least everything that is not already a part of me—and moreover I must take it by extreme violence. With intelligent egoism we forbid murder and theft among ourselves, but toward other beings, toward nature, we are all murderers and thieves.

Who gives me the right to catch a rabbit? The fox and the vulture are just as hungry as I, just as much entitled to exist. Who gives me the right to pick a pear? It belongs just as much to the ants, the caterpillars, the birds, the four-footed animals. To whom then does it really belong? To the one who takes it. Is it not sufficient that I live by murder and theft—should I in addition thank the gods? How foolish! I have reason to thank the gods if they can show me that I really owe them my life, and this they will not have done until pigeons fly ready roasted into my mouth. Did I say roasted? No, that is not enough; I should say chewed and digested, for the tedious and unaesthetic operations of mastication and digestion are unbefitting the gods and their gifts. Why should a God who at one stroke makes the world out of nothing in a twinkling need so much time to provide me with a bit of chyme? Here again it becomes evident that the Godhead consists as it were of two components, one originating in man’s imagination, the other in nature. “You must pray,” says the one component, the god differentiated from nature. “You must work,” says the other, the god who is not differentiated from nature and merely expresses the essence of nature. For nature is a worker bee, while the gods are drones. How can I derive the image and law of industry from drones? To derive nature or world from God, to maintain that hunger comes from satiety, need from abundance, gravity from levity, work from sloth—is attempting to bake common bread from ambrosia and to brew beer from the nectar of the gods.

Nature is the first God, the first object of religion; but religion does not look upon it as nature; religion views it as a human being, characterized by emotion, imagination, and thought. The secret of religion is “the identity of the subjective and objective," that is, the unity of man and nature, but this unity is arrived at in disregard of their true character. Man has many ways of humanizing nature and, conversely (for man and nature are inseparable), of objectifying and externalizing his own being. Here, however, we shall confine ourselves to two of these ways, to the metaphysical form and the practical-poetic form of monotheism. The latter is characteristic of the Old Testament and the Koran. The God of the Koran as of the Old Testament is nature or the world, its real, living being as opposed to artificial, dead, man-made idols.* He is not any part of the world or fragment of nature, such as the stone which the Arabs before Mohammed worshiped, but all nature, immense and undivided. In the tenth Sura of the Koran, for example, we read: “Say: ‘Who provides food for you from the earth and the sky? Who has endowed you with sight and hearing? Who brings forth the living from the dead, and the dead from the living? Who ordains all things?’ They will reply: ‘Allah.’ Say: ‘Will you not take heed then?’” Or the sixth Sura: “Allah splits the seed and the fruitstone. . . . He kindles the light of dawn. He has ordained the night for rest and the sun and the moon to measure time. Such is the ordinance of Allah, the Mighty One, the All-Knowing. . . . He sends down water from the sky and with it we bring forth the buds of every plant, green foliage and close-growing grain, palm trees laden with clusters of dates, vineyards and olive groves and all manner of pomegranates. Behold their fruits when they ripen. Surely in these there are signs enough for true believers.” And the thirteenth Sura: “It was Allah who raised the heavens without resting them on visible pillars. . . . It was He who spread out the earth and placed upon it rivers and unchangeable mountains. He gave all Plants their male and female parts and drew the veil of night over the day. . . . It is He who makes the lightning flash upon you, inspiring you with fear and hope, and makes the clouds heavy with rain. The thunder sounds His praises and the angels too for awe. He hurls His thunderbolts and crushes whom He pleases. Yet the unbelievers wrangle about Allah. Stern is His punishment.”

Thus the signs or effects of the true God—the original God as opposed to His copies the idols—are the workings of nature. An idol cannot bring forth living things, tasty fruits, fruitful rain, or terrible storms. This can be done only by the God who is not fashioned by man but is God by nature, and who therefore not only appears to be but is a real living being. But a God whose signs and works are the works of nature is nothing more than nature. Yet, as we have said, He is not a part of nature which is in one place and not another, which is here today and gone tomorrow and which for that very reason man makes eternally present in an image; He is the whole of nature. “When night drew its shadow over him [Abraham],” we read in the sixth Sura, “he saw a star. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is my God.’ But when the star faded into the morning light, he said: ‘I will not worship gods that fade.’ When he beheld the rising moon, he said: ‘That surely is my God.’ But when it, too, set, he said: ‘If Allah does not guide me, I shall surely go astray.’ Then, when he beheld the sun shining, he said: ‘That must be my God: it is larger than the other two.’ But when it, too, set, he said to his people: ‘I am done with your idols. I will turn my face to Him who has created the heavens and the earth.’”

Thus eternal omnipresence is a hallmark of the true God; but nature, too, is everywhere. Where there is no nature, I am not, and where I am there is also nature. “Whither shall I go” from thee, O Nature? “And where shall I flee” from thy being? “If I fly heavenward, Nature is there. If I bed myself in hell, Nature is there too.” Where there is life there is nature, and where there is no life, there too is nature; everything is full of nature. How, then, would you escape from nature? But the God of the Koran, as of the Old Testament, is nature and at the same time not nature, for He is also a subjective, i. e., personal being, knowing and thinking, willing and acting like man. As an object of religion, the works of nature are at the same time works of human ignorance and imagination, the being or cause behind them is a product of human ignorance and imagination. Man is divided from nature by a gulf of ignorance; he does not know how the grass grows, how a child forms in the womb, what causes rain, thunder and lightning. “Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth?” we read in Job. “Declare if thou knowest it all. . . . Hast thou seen the treasures of the hail? . . . . Hath the rain a father? . . . . Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?”

Because man does not know what the works of nature are made of, where they come from and under what conditions, he regards them as the works of an absolutely unconditioned and unlimited power, to which nothing is impossible, which even brought forth the world out of nothing, just as it continues to bring forth the works of nature from nothing, the nothing of human ignorance. Human ignorance is bottomless, and the human imagination knows no bounds; deprived of its foundations by ignorance and of its limits by the imagination, the power of nature becomes divine omnipotence.

*Jalal-ud-din relates that Mohammed sent a zealous Mohammedan to convert an unbeliever to Islam. “What manner of being is your God?” the unbeliever asked him. “Is He of gold, silver, or copper?” Lightning struck the godless man and he was dead. This is a crude but convincing lesson on the difference between the living God and the man-made god.

— Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Additions and Notes, pp. 315-320.